The BBG Watch website — www.bbgwatch.com or www.usgbroadcasts.com — has reached the 700,000 hits since it was launched in September 2011. BBG Watch is published anonymously by former and current Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) journalists and other employees, as well as outside contributors and supporters.
We want to thank everybody who has contributed to the success of our website, especially those who visit our site regularly, as well as our writers, editors and everyone who has sent us information and comments.
Your support is highly valued and helps us continue our public service.
The mass firing of Radio Liberty journalists in Moscow last month has generated tremendous interest and greatly increased the number of site visitors and views.
We republish here some of the most popular posts of the last 30 days.
The most popular post was by Mario Corti.
Former Radio Liberty Russian Service director Mario Corti – RFE/RL management turns radio listeners and visitors to its website in Russia into anti-Americans
Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty Management Turns Radio Listeners and Visitors To Its Website in Russia Into Anti-Americans
by former Radio Liberty Russian Service director Mario Corti
I worked for RFE-RL for several years in different capacities and positions. As a manager, one of my responsibilities was to participate in the selection and firing of employees. A very difficult task, the risk being hiring or firing the wrong people. And I certainly made mistakes, some of which I am aware of and regret them. When I was in charge of the Samizdat Unit, which analyzed the underground press in the Soviet Union, I tried to fire one of the members of my staff, probably the best specialist in his field. In my opinion, his behavior inside the unit and working habits were more damaging then beneficial to the organization. My decision provoked a turmoil both inside RFE-RL and outside. Letters of protest against his dismissal came from RFE-RL employees and from prominent academics from all around the world. My supervisors got scared and cancelled my decision. During a major reorganization of the RFE-RL Research Institute, I participated as deputy director of the Information Resources Department in the outsourcing of media monitoring services. We found a company in Moscow perform the same tasks that were performed by our Monitoring Section. It was a much cheaper solution. All the members of the unit were fired. On April 11, 2001, NTV’s offices were stormed and sized by a new management team appointed by Gazprom and lead by Boris Jordan, an American businessman, and Vladimir Kulistikov, a former RFE-RL employee (what an irony!) Savik Shuster, the RL Moscow Bureau Director, who had previously been allowed by RFE-RL management to comment on soccer matches on NTV, immediately decided that he would never again work for NTV. For three weeks Savik Shuster was on the air everyday in his Liberty Live show condemning the seizure of NTV as an attempt against freedom of speech. After three weeks, all of a sudden, here was Savik again commenting on soccer matches on NTV. I was then director of the Russian Service and I thought that Savik, with his decision to cooperate with the Gazprom team, had betrayed the trust of Radio Liberty’s listeners. I decided that, if Savik would continue to appear on NTV that he had previously sharply attacked, then he must leave RFE-RL. But he insisted on doing both: working for RL and for the new NTV. I suggested termination. Although my direct supervisor was against this decision, I was able to make my point and convince some of the higher level executives. My direct supervisor suggested that I should sign the termination letter since it was my initiative, but he was ordered by his superiors to sign it himself. While most Russian Service staff members in Prague understood that I had a point, most Moscow staffers insisted that we had not done much to convince Savik to change his mind. This situation increased the already existing division between the Russian teams in Prague and Moscow. But this is another story. In brief, I had my own trouble working with some of my most talented and skilled colleagues. Then my turn came to go. I was first removed from my position as Russian Service director and a year later I was fired altogether. I was not happy with the situation that led to my removal and tried to resist for as long as I could. But much later I realized that I had been only a small part of that glorious institution. The Russian Service existed before me and it would exist after me for a long time. People go, and new people step in. It’s the life of any vital organization. But only to a certain degree.
After I was forced to leave Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty and my position as the director of the Russian Service several years ago in a dispute with the management over their proposed program content changes, I could only remotely imagine that only a few years later, some of the same BBG and new RFE-RL executives would put at risk the very existence of the Russian Service.
Put at risk is a very mild expression. In fact by firing almost all of the Moscow bureau team, including the best journalists, RFE-RL President Steve Korn and his acolytes inflicted a mortal blow to this great institution. To mention but three journalists who were fired or left on their own: Mikhail Sokolov, Anna Kachkaeva and Marina Timasheva are not only among the best professionals in their field, they are also celebrities in Russia.
Why it has always been so difficult for the BBG and RFE-RL executives, managers and administrative personnel to work with and get along with talented professionals?
I think no one would argue that Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi and their colleagues were far more important than General Leslie Groves for the Manhattan Project to be successful. Oppenheimer and his team of scientists knew far better what was to be done. Lots of people around the world know who Oppenheimer and Fermi were, hardly anyone has ever heard of Groves and his team of administrators and military technicians. Oppenheimer and Groves spoke different languages, but they still somehow managed to understand each other.
Similarly, Russian Service broadcasters are much more important than any BBG member or RFE-RL administrative personnel for the success of Radio Liberty. They are the ones who do the real job. They are the experts. They know better by definition. They are on the front line, they are the identity of Radio Liberty and they grant the visibility to America in Russia. People in Russia care about what they are being told on the radio and who is addressing them.
In Russia, the country of Radio Liberty’s audience, the name Sokolov means a lot, as a journalist he has made history there. He and his colleagues are the stars. For a radio to be successful, you need strong personalities to go on the air, and they are. Russian listeners couldn’t care less about the Trimbles, the Korns, the Ragonas.
I tried to explain this simple truth to my supervisors. They didn’t get the point. They thought they knew better. As far as they were concerned the Russian Service had too much visibility, too much power, it was too much of a radio with too many personalities.
And this is something administrative managers of RFE-RL after Kevin Klose, the last great President of RFE-RL, could never put up with. It is not easy to manage and work with strong personalities. And RFE-RL bureaucrats did only see one part of the medal, preferring to consider and treat their Russian broadcasters only as capricious, awkward and annoying human beings.
This mentality hasn’t changed.
General Groves main function was to obtain the necessary financial resources, identify the sites, provide the facilities, coordinate the work of the different components of the Manhattan project. Similarly–once the editorial policy is in place, and it has been in place for a long time–the BBG and the RFE-RL administrative personnel functions are to seek and provide the financial means, the technical facilities, administrative experience, support and the other necessary means for the broadcasters to perform their job and to succeed.
But the most essential task they had and needed to be always focused on was providing radio program delivery and distribution, so that the broadcasters’ work reaches and can be appreciated by the listeners. They failed.
Because they failed and since the departure of Kevin Klose as RFE-RL President, they put the whole blame for falling ratings on the Russian Service staff. Since then, their obsession has been to reform the Russian Service no matter what. They never understood that it is useless to have the best possible journalists team (and they had it) and the best possible radio programming (and they had it) if the programs cannot be widely distributed and heard.
Whether your radio is good or lousy, your ratings will be low if you have a lousy signal and no program distribution. However, there have been opportunities to get a powerful medium wave (AM) transmitter covering the whole North West of European Russia that would not be under the control of the Russian government. Just days before the RFE-RL management announced that it was being forced to abandon AM rebroadcasts in Moscow, they were again offered an AM transmitter in the Baltic states. They refused the offer.
Not that this one transmitter could on its own attract a vast audience, but it would be a step in the right direction while other options are being considered. It would be a response to Putin rather than the current capitulation. At one time, they could have even obtained an FM transmitter in Moscow. RFE-RL management failed to grab these opportunities.
Mikhail Sokolov argued that, even under under Putin, RFE-RL could have had a mix of effective broadcasting presence in Russia if the management tried hard and put some brains, flexibility and creativity into it. I agree with him. After all, you can always distribute a perfect digital radio signal or even better radio studio/TV hybrid program over the satellite and advertise it. There are millions in Russia who have satellite antennas. You can always broadcast radio over the Internet, and even put video cameras in the studio, as an excellent byproduct. But you have to have an excellent radio program, talented hosts, and a team of journalists and broadcasters to produce it who enjoy the trust and respect of their audience. The main statutory purpose of RFE-RL is to create radio broadcasts, or broadcasts in any case, and no one has removed the two initials for “Radio” in that acronym.
I admire the Moscow bureau team for what they did in incorporating radio into one of the best news and commentary websites in Russia. They were not only part of the digital revolution, they led it in Russia in social media and in using well known radio personalities of Radio Liberty to promote the unique power and influence of the broadcast medium over the Internet. They increased traffic to the site tenfold. The entire Moscow Internet and social media team was fired along with some of the best radio journalists. They were fired by RFE-RL President Steven Korn and his Vice President Julia Ragona, which makes me wonder what they know about Russia, journalism, Runet (Russian Internet) and Russian social media that these Russian journalists and media experts do not.
As far as the past recent history of RL is concerned, I have already touched upon some of what happened a few years ago in my interview to Free Media Online, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Has Lost Its Uniqueness Warns Former Director of Radio Liberty’s Russian Service.
Another “cultural” divide between broadcasters and bureaucrats has to do with work habits and work ethics. The former make sure that broadcasts are on the air 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. If necessary they are at work during the night, on Saturdays and Sundays, while RFE-RL administrative personnel is there hardly 8 hours a day from Monday to Friday. (I am not referring here to RFE-RL technical personnel. I know them and I have the highest appreciation for their professionalism and dedication. But they could and can only do what bureaucrats order them to do.) Broadcasters expected more support and understanding from the administrative personnel, including their managers. This was very annoying for the bureaucrats. One of my impressions when I worked at the radios was that RFE-RL executives would have been much happier doing away with radio altogether. I didn’t realize though that I had a right premonition.
Because BBG and RFE-RL administrators miserably failed in program delivery, program distribution and multimedia program presentation–a lot of the blame, of course, also goes to the Russian authorities who clamped down on foreign rebroadcasts–they now decided to do away with radio altogether and concentrate on Internet only. And what did they do? They did not even blame the Kremlin with any forcefulness or tried to use the influence of the United States government to win concessions, considering that Voice of Russia and Russia Today are widely distributed on AM, FM, cable, and satellite TV channels in America. Crazy as it may sound, they rented new, bigger and more expensive facilities in Moscow and then fired the whole Internet team and most broadcasters. The transition to the new facilities is not over yet. Masha Gessen, the newly appointed Russian Service director, and her team, will have to wait a few months before they can enjoy them.
Something I have not seen underlined by the media so far about the new director is that when Masha Gessen was initially offered the job by RFE-RL, she refused it. Instead she accepted another job in Moscow and only when very soon she was fired from that job for refusing to cover one of President Putin’s publicity stunts, she agreed to join RFE-RL, which says something about her preferences. RFE-RL was not her priority, it was only her second choice.
Why did Korn choose Masha Gessen?
Steve Korn may be convinced that he and Masha Gessen speak the same language. But he does not seem to have the same appreciation for foreign cultures and administrative skills as those who managed Radio Liberty in the past. He will be disappointed. He has already encountered controversy and very soon will run into even greater trouble with Masha Gessen and her team. He should have taken a closer look at her professional history.
In conclusion, Mikhail Sokolov, Anna Kachkaeva, Marina Timasheva, Elena Fanailova and their brave colleagues–forgive me for not mentioning them all–will remain as prominent figures in the post-perestroika history of RFE-RL. Steve Korn will only be remembered as the person who, with his clumsy responses and lack of understanding threw out the baby with the bath water. He will be remembered as the person who managed to turn even Radio Liberty listeners and visitors to its website into anti-Americans.
About Mario Corti:
A member of the FreeMediaOnline.org Board of Directors and the International Advisory Board, Mario Corti is a distinguished journalist, writer, and analyst of Russian politics, society, and culture. He has been an active supporter of independent journalism and publishing in Russia and in other countries of the former Soviet Union and throughout Eastern Europe.
In 1979, Mario Corti joined Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) in Munich as a research-analyst/editor of the Samizdat unit of Radio Liberty. He later became deputy chief and chief of the Samizdat unit and served as Deputy Director and Director of the Information Resources Department of the RFE-RL Research Institute. After RFE/RL’s move from Munich to Prague, Mario Corti worked as a broadcaster in the Russian Broadcasting Department, serving as Deputy Director (1996 – 1998) and as Director (1998-2003). While in charge of RFE/RL Russian broadcasts, he expanded Moscow and Saint Petersburg news bureaus and opened a news bureau in Ekaterinburg. He also organized training seminars for journalists who contributed news reports to RFE/RL and instituted the “Radio Svoboda” Journalistic Award. While at RFE/RL, he also launched a number of cooperative projects with independent media outlets and independent journalists in Russia. He also started a multimedia educational project with the Moscow University for the Humanities (RGGU) based on the Radio Liberty series dealing with the XXth Communist Party Congress. He retired from RFE/RL in 2005.
Before joining RFE/RL, Mario Corti worked as a translator and interpreter in the Italian Embassy in Moscow, cofounded a publishing house (La Casa Matriona) in Milan, and was actively publicizing the work of Soviet human rights activists and Samizdat writers. Between 1969 and 1978, he edited several books on dissent in the USSR. In 1977 he served as chairman of the Italian Organizing Committee of the Second International Sakharov Hearings in Rome and contributed to an exhibit on Soviet dissent for the Venice Biennale. He organized exhibits of Samizdat documents in Turin, Italy (sponsored by La Gazzetta del Popolo in 1978), and in Washington, D.C. (sponsored by AFL-CIO in 1979). In 1979, he helped to organize the Third (American) Sakharov Hearings in Washington, D.C. on violations of human rights in the USSR and Eastern Europe.
Mario Corti is the author and editor of several books. Dreif, a book written in Russian about philosophy and culture, was published in Russia and Ukraine in 2002. His book, Salieri i Mozart, on the relationship between the two composers, was published in Russian in 2005. His book about Italian physicians in Russia appeared both in Russian (Drugie ital’iantsy. Vrachi na sluzhbe Rosssii, St. Petersburg, 2010), and in Italian (Gli “altri” italiani. Medici al servizio della Russia, Rome, 2011). His articles on human rights and Soviet dissent have appeared in several languages in many countries. He speaks Italian, Rusian, English, German, Spanish, and French and has a working knowledge of several other European languages. He currently lives in Italy and writes for the Russian media.
‘Special operation’ at Radio Liberty in Moscow, Part One
BBG Watch Commentary
Some were called at home early in the morning by a receptionist. Others found out something was wrong when they reported for work at the Radio Liberty bureau in Moscow. Newly hired guards stopped them. They were told to go to the Moscow law office of DLA Piper which does legal work for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).
Some 20 journalists and web editors would be fired that day and about the same number the next.
Sometime earlier, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty President Steve Korn promised employees they would finally be getting medical insurance, moving to a new, larger facility, and be trained in digital media. They had no idea what was coming.
Mr. Korn was looking for a new director of the Russian Service. He read a political biography of Vladimir Putin, The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, by Masha Gessen, an American-Russian-Jewish expatriate. Earlier this year, she turned down a job offer from Radio Liberty and started to work for a Russian magazine instead. But she consulted for Mr. Korn on the side and told him how to reform the Moscow bureau. Then, she lost her Russian magazine job — a reportedly frequent event in her professional life — when she refused to cover a publicity stunt featuring President Putin. Putin found out about it and decided to act.
Even though she’s been calling him a dictator, he invited her for a semi-private meeting at the Kremlin. He apparently couldn’t stand the idea that a journalist, married to another woman and living with their children under his imperial protection in Russia, would lose her job because of him, or so we were led to believe.
More likely, Putin’s FSB snoopers told him about Masha’s job negotiations with the American broadcaster, and he may have decided to play mischief. Gessen wrote later that Putin barely knew who she was and that he gets most of his information from state TV. That was strange. She at first accepted his help and didn’t say anything about it, then said no to Putin and yes to Korn, to the latter’s great delight. Radio Liberty journalists in Moscow were doomed.
In Washington, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) members, appointed by President Obama but representing both political parties, were not told about the meeting at the Kremlin. Mr. Korn assured them he found a terrific candidate to lead the Russian Service and had plans for restructuring the Moscow bureau. He was not specific.
Gessen’s selection was officially announced and she was to report for work on October 1. Several days later, about 40 journalists, the RL Moscow website team, and technical staffers, practically the entire bureau — some of whom worked for Radio Liberty for over 20 years — found themselves without jobs.
About five of these were not dismissed but chose to resign in protest and solidarity with their colleagues. Radio Liberty as it was known during the Cold War and during its long struggle against the assault on independent media under Putin was no more.
“This dismissal wasn’t voluntary – neither for me, nor for my colleagues,” one former Radio Liberty woman journalist wrote to BBG members. Hers is one of many letters the BBG received from Moscow, in addition to a statement of concern from President Gorbachev and a letter of protest sent to Secretary Clinton and members of Congress by a group of prominent Russian human rights activists led by Ludmila Alexeeva.
Letters to BBG members including striking details of the “special operation,” as some Radio Liberty journalists described their mass firing:
“We were subjected to serious psychological pressure. The administration of RFE/RL hid their intentions from us until the last day. Previously, President Steven Korn repeatedly stated that he would try to save all the positions, and colleagues who had been dismissed the day before us were forbidden to tell us about it.
We were given to understand that we would be dismissed under any circumstances, even if we did not sign these documents. We were given to understand that it was better to agree, otherwise we would be thrown out without any payment.
In the Moscow RFE/RL bureau, the guards of frightening appearance were especially hired for this purpose, and we were led from one floor to another, being under escort, and had only two hours to pack our personal belongings. The guards blocked the entrance to the building and blocked access to our computers.
We have been treated as enemies. We, who for so many years worked for the radio, who gave it so much strength and energy, who worked much more for the idea rather than money; we for whom the promotion of democratic values and human rights was the mission and the purpose in life, were treated by these RFERL American executives like common thieves.
In fact, the whole old team of the Moscow Bureau was fired — brave people, real human rights activists, who for many years led the fight for human dignity in the complicated (to put it mildly) conditions of Putin’s Russia. I do not understand why we deserved such treatment and who gave the RFE/RL Prague management the right to treat us in such a way.”
Mr. Korn told BBG members the fired employees, and especially the “seven Russians,” as he called them, who signed the protest letter were confused. The employees signed termination agreements. We went out of our way to treat them with respect, he said. Alexeeva and others didn’t understand that Radio Liberty lost an AM radio transmitter in Moscow and didn’t know they were criticizing Masha Gessen. If they knew it was her, they wouldn’t do it because they knew her since she was a child growing up in Russia, he was quoted as saying. She called to confront them and they said they didn’t know.
On the firing itself, former employees, including those who resigned in protest, tell a completely different story:
“Mr. Korn and Ms. Ragona are saying that the dismissals were based “on the agreement of both parties.” This may be legally or technically true, but it is nevertheless simply at variance with facts and reality.
The truth is that RFE/RL management representatives forced the staff to sign dismissal agreements. What could these journalists do faced with blocked computers, canceled electronic passes, and prevented from accessing RFE/RL’s website publishing system? If an employee refused to take the offer to be fired, he or she would be dismissed anyway. RFE/RL management would have an opportunity to fire the employee, according to Article 81 of the Russian Labor Code.
The audio recording of the whole ugly dismissal scene is available and can be provided to the BBG or become evidence in court, if needed.
Such methods and style of management – bragging about a new multimedia concept and firing people who succeeded in its implementation and increased RFE/RL Russian Service web audience tenfold; dismissing all journalists, who throughout the last twenty years have become a part of RFE/RL’s brand – all this looks like the worst kind of mismanagement and a gross violation of moral and ethical values.
That is why I resigned in protest.
The Radio Liberty editorial office, which consisted of people who spent years risking their health and lives (RFE/RL didn’t provide its staff in Moscow and in other Russian cities with medical insurance) advocating for human rights and freedom of expression, was ruined not by our antagonists but by our own top management – at the expense of American taxpayers, whose money was used not for promoting democracy but for hiring guards to keep those doing the promoting from going on the air and posting human rights stories on the web.
Tens of professionals with irreproachable reputation, the second most popular Russian multimedia platform and the respected brand developed throughout years of hard work – became victims of such incredible bad judgement that it brought condemnation from some of the most famous Russian human rights activists and former president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mikhail Gorbachev.
I respectfully urge the honorable members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors to find out for themselves what happened to this venerable public institution to restore what was lost before it is too late. I speak here on behalf of myself and my colleagues.”
Did Ludmila Alexeeva and other human rights activist know what was going on when they signed their protests letter? One fired journalist wrote to BBG that the famous Russian human rights activist was right in the middle of it:
“I was lucky in that I was able to say farewell to my listeners who have followed my human rights programs for 10 years. The majority of fired journalists were not afforded such an opportunity.
My own opportunity to say good bye was pure luck. On the day I was fired, I was recording an interview with the famous human rights activist and founder of the Moscow Helsinki Group Ludmila Alekseeva. Owing solely to this circumstance did my program eventually air. Alekseeva saw first hand what was happening in the bureau, and soon a letter was drafted by ten of Russia’s most prominent human rights activists. They were outraged by the destruction of the Moscow bureau. Most importantly, no one knew at the time, and no one knows now what the real reasons behind this decision were.
From a strictly legal standpoint, I have no qualms with RFE/RL’s management; I signed the papers I was asked to sign. But no one can silence my moral condemnation of what happened. I still have not heard a satisfactory explanation for why such an enormous percentage of our staff was fired, considering the fact that the BBG’s annual report named the Russian Language Service one of the best under its supervision.
RFE/RL’s management has stated on a number of occasions that our future is in multimedia. Why, then, were the first people fired those who staff our Internet division – the people who brought coverage of the protests in Russia to hundreds of thousands of online users? The number of our website visitors and social network subscribers has been growing unabatedly, and these figures were part of the BBG’s annual report.
RFE/RL’s management talked about convergence, but our journalists already wrote pieces for the station’s website, produced video materials, maintained personal pages and broadcast over the Internet. Many of them took the initiative and took multimedia training sessions in order to improve our mass-media outreach. Was this not a clear enough demonstration of our willingness and ability to adapt to new conditions?
RFE/RL’s management also talked about cutting costs, but due to the timing of the dismissals — not wanting to see these loyal employees for even one more day or to allow them even to say good bye — the company was forced to pay out hefty severance packages.”
Well-known former Radio Liberty journalist Mikhail Sokholov who drafted the earlier decree that gave Radio Liberty legal right to broadcast in Russia took issue with RFE/RL executives’ claims that the firings were necessary because the station lost its AM frequency in Moscow. Former President Yeltsin personally handed the decree to Sokholov in recognition of his courageous on-the-scene reporting during the communist coup in 1991.
“The real story behind the AM frequency license, which was bound to be lost, and the inability to broadcast is very different from what RFE/RL management is saying. The truth is that RFE/RL Vice President Ms. Julia Ragona deliberately rejected and ignored the proposal of a joint project to rebroadcast radio transmissions in Russia together with the opposition media outlet “Novaya Gazeta.” RFE/RL executives did not even bother to respond to emails.
All other major Western broadcasters in Russia, including BBC, CNN and European media, have operated and will continue to operate under similar arrangements with other licensed Russian stations and networks. They are not affected at all by the new media law.
To suggest that the loss of a specific license or AM frequency — an event that was known for months in advance — required the sudden mass firings affecting almost the entire bureau, including the outstanding Internet team, and to say that while everybody knows that a much larger RFE/RL facility is being built in Moscow, or to suggest that the Russian Service did not already have a vigorous digital, multimedia outreach strategy, is ludicrous and misleading.
Prominent Russian political figures, including Mikhail Gorbachev, have emphasized that the self-created defeat for Radio Liberty in Russia occurred just at the time when the Russian authorities have stepped up their pressure on the independent media. The enemies of freedom and democracy certainly have good reasons to applaud RFE/RL President Mr. Steven Korn’s decision to dismiss the entire Russian team of journalists.”
Another fired Radio Liberty journalist wrote about Masha Gessen’s media notoriety in Russia:
“It is not good form to discuss other people’s private lives, so I was reluctant to bring up this issue, but numerous reports in Russian media have made it abundantly public. Now the head of up-to-now respected public American institution in Russia is a woman who has made her private life the subject of national gossip: among other things, she is notorious in the press for stories of her sexual adventures.
As a result, RFE/RL is incurring enormous reputational damage. The most widespread explanation circulating on the Internet is that it took Putin one day (the day he met with Masha Gessen) to accomplish what the KGB could not do in 30 years – to destroy Radio Liberty. I subscribe to this opinion.”
As for those Radio Liberty journalists who were fired or resigned, for some of them — especially the older ones — the future doesn’t look very bright. One woman journalist wrote:
“It seems that the President of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty Mr. Steven Korn and Vice-President Ms. Julia Ragona have never thought for a moment about what will happen to us who live in an authoritarian state, where anti-American feelings are very strong, where Radio Liberty is still called «hostile voice», as in Soviet times, and where for the large segment of the population we are perceived as enemies.
Just one example: my colleagues and I have been regularly attacked by aggressive people while making polls on the streets Moscow. (Some individuals tried to beat us and to take away our recording equipment.) After a few such attacks we were given life insurance, but the RFE/RL management never provided us with medical insurance, which we would need if any of us suffered physical injuries or developed a serious illness. All these years we had been working without health insurance! I wonder if BBG members were aware of this situation.
Now, when in Russia the attack on the rights and freedoms of its citizens is now in full swing, I’m sure, that no one from among us, journalists fired from RFERL, «foreign agents», «enemies of Russia» will be hired. For example, I still have four years remaining until retirement, and I risk staying unemployed these next years, and consequently I will get only a very small pension.
My colleagues (about 40 people) were thrown out onto the street from Radio Liberty with the same “wolf ticket” (a Russian expression which applies to individuals under any kind of suspicion by the authorities or powerful employers, whom no one dares to hire or treat decently because it would offend or annoy those who have power and control). Among us, there are people of pre-retirement age, there are single mothers with many children, and some who are physically disabled.
How are they going to live now? How can they feed their children? How will they be treated by the Russian state authorities? The answer to the last question is, at least, obvious.
If the RFE/RL’s management decided to dismiss so many distinguished journalists, who because of their visibility in pro-democracy reporting have become tarnished goods in Putin’s Russia, they should have at least thought about pensions for them or, for example, whether to extend invitations and help them get a refugee status in the United States. But this was not done or even thought of. Mr. Korn just told us all “thanks” in a written statement posted on the website from Prague, and gave to understand that we are no longer needed.
All these years, working for Radio Liberty, we were sure, that behind us stood a strong organization, a powerful and fair country – the United States of America, and that we would always be under its protection and would get help and wouldn’t be left unprotected in case of threat or dire need. And now we are threatened, and we won’t be defended. We were all thrown to the mercy of fate.
The new Director of the Russian Service Masha Gessen came to the radio with her new team, and the people who had been working here for 20 years and more, became a used commodity for the management, things which can be safely dumped and not thought of anymore.
Dear Members of the BBG, please tell me that I am not right. Tell me that there is at least one person among you who cares or even worries about my future and the future of my colleagues. Let me know the answer to the question which we are asking together with the leaders of the Russian human rights movement: will there be an investigation of the activity of the management of RFE/RL? And another question: what should we, the fired journalists, do now? How are we to survive in a country where many of our compatriots consider us enemies because we have worked for so many years for American radio?
What can we do if no one cares to answer these question? Some of us will appeal to the Russian courts against the management of Radio Liberty or to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Among other things, we suffered a huge moral damage. And we are still in Russia and can’t leave.
Is all of this a political reset against traditional human rights reporting? A capitulation to Mr. Putin? Digital transformation? A special operation by clueless management? Mr. Korn’s gift to Putin, a gift to Masha Gessen, or both?
One thing is certain from a journalistic perspective. Masha Gessen, a journalist and media personality, denies any responsibility for the purge at Radio Liberty. To suggest such a thing would be slander.
She has indeed made accusations of slander against one former Radio Liberty journalist, the station’s former website editor-in-chief, as well as a former outside contributor, a famous Russian satirist, for suggesting a link between and her and the mass firing. She said she was not even on board and it wasn’t her decision.
President Putin, whom Gessen called a dictator, recently signed a law which re-criminalizes slander with fines of up to $150,000. Former Radio Liberty journalists and others say the law is designed to silence independent media and investigative reporting even more.
Gessen is now officially the director of Radio Liberty Russian Service. The journalists and the old programs are gone. The guards are still there. Only a handful of staffers in Moscow struggle to fill the broadcasts and the website. Masha Gessen will no doubt bring in her own people. But who is going to work for her? Presumably someone who doesn’t engage in slander. Mr. Putin will be watching.
‘Special operation’ at Radio Liberty Moscow – Part Two
“I remember guards at our beloved RFE/RL Moscow editorial office and frozen eyes of bureaucrats saying ‘Thank you, we no longer need your service. Here is your compensation, hope you are satisfied.’”
The following excerpts are from the letters to members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) from Radio Liberty Moscow bureau journalists and other staffers who were fired by RFE/RL managers or resigned in protest.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty executives did not seemed worried how the mass firings at the Radio Liberty (Radio Svoboda) office in Moscow are going to be viewed by the Russian public opinion, but Radio Liberty journalists did. You might be surprised to learn that they worried about the reputation of the station that was firing them and about America’s image in Russia. They were, in fact, engaging in pro-American public diplomacy. The RFE/RL management was not. Quite the opposite.
“We are often asked why we didn’t refuse to sign our dismissal agreements, why we didn’t protest, why we did not strike and occupy the office?
What could be the outcome in such a case?
We could have a big scandal with big damage to the image of the station and the American government. All anti-American propagandists in Russia would be ready to blame USA in connection with this incident. In fact , the fired journalists, me included, worried more about saving America’s and RFE/RL’s reputation than the RFE/RL management , which hired guards to repress us. Imagine photos in the Russian newspapers, TV and online media how these guards are leading us out! A very good news for everbody who hates America.”
Radio Liberty journalists and staffers were not only fired in a most brutal “special operation.” Before this action, they say they were mislead by the two top RFE/RL executives:
“RFE/RL officials prepared for their action very carefully. They told us that we would be fired anyway and suggested a “soft way.” We were so shocked and so loyal to our company, which we considered to be part of our family, that we one by one signed our dismissal agreements.
At the same time we were deeply pained that the company, for which we worked for many years with all our energy and dedication, was getting rid of us in this way. It seemed like an awful dream.
We had several meetings with Mr. Korn and Ms. Ragona before. Every time, they were informing us that we will work in a new digital office. We asked about training on how to use the new equipment, and Mr. Korn promised that such training will be organized. He also informed us that we will have medical insurance at last. It seemed perfect.
Mr. Korn asked us to give him proposals on how to work in a new digital format of Radio Liberty. Because I follow closely developments in new media and participated in many seminars with experts in this field, I have written such proposals – how to produce multimedia news in a new Radio Liberty newsroom step by step. Ms. Gloushkova told me that she had sent this document to Prague. There was no answer.
At the same time, plans for the new office where made where there would be only 35 work stations. Somebody told us that half of the journalists would not need work stations because they would work remotely via Internet, doing on-site reporting on news events. There was not a word about any mass dismissals.
In retrospect, this whole situation was very strange, because until then RFE/RL always had a very open and honest atmosphere and good communications between management and employees.
If we were told that the station didn’t have enough money for our staff, I’m sure that my colleagues would be ready to work for less money, because money is not the main issue for us. We all felt that our work for the legendary Radio Liberty was our mission, our main purpose in our professional life.
We were already working very effectively on the new digital Radio Liberty. As an experienced and qualified specialist in this area, I was very interested and delighted to take part in this very challenging digital project. But on September 21, I was informed by the management – you are not needed in the New Russian Service together with many other very experienced and qualified journalists and new media specialists. Who can tell me, and us – why?”
Many Radio Liberty web team members found out for the first time that they were fired when the guards prevented them from entering the Moscow bureau. According to other accounts, they were then told to report to the offices of an international law firm representing RFE/RL where many of these employees claim they were subjected to extreme psychological pressure to sign their termination agreements. the author of this letter, was not fired. He resigned to protest RFE/RL management’s actions.
“September the 20th, almost all my colleagues from the Internet team of Moscow RFE/RL bureau were not allowed to enter the building. This was the first way to notify them of being suddenly and without any explanation fired from their jobs.
The next day almost all of the radio staff was fired too.
I was not on that list, but I decided to quit because to me this kind of behavior by the management is unconscionable.
The Internet team under Ludmila Telen’s leadership has reached significant results – Russian RFE/RL website became one of the most popular in the radio/news segment of the Russian web.
With the very significant help from our technical director Ilya Tochkin, we became one of the pioneers in live video streaming via Internet in Russia, covering such forbidden on Russian official TV themes, as court processes against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Platon Lebedev and Pussy Riot, visiting Butyrskaya prison on the anniversary of Sergey Magnitsky’s death and gathering hundreds of thousands of visitors for live video coverage of protest actions in Moscow and so on.
We have made a significant progress and were regularly praised by our bosses in Prague and in Washington – there was not even one complain about our Internet and multimedia work. But suddenly all the fully organized process was destroyed.
The reorganization turned out to be the total annihilation of the Russian Service of RFE/RL.
These actions amount to violations of civil and ethical laws, journalistic standards, and human rights.
I was working at the RFE/RL Moscow bureau for almost 12 years – first as a freelance correspondent, then as the morning live radio show host and as video editor. We had a successful strategy of developing RFE/RL web, radio and video presence.
Our audience was shocked by the destruction of Radio Liberty, which was one of the last politically balanced media in Russia.”
Among those fired by RFE/RL management were single mothers with many children and disabled employees. Some have worked for Radio Liberty Moscow for many years.
“Firing a disabled but fully employable and well performing person is extraordinary in any civilized country. I became disabled after a strike, which happened in 2008. My schedule, created at that time by RFE/RL management, was very demanding. I spent more than ten hours a week doing live broadcasts, three days – early in the morning. My stroke didn’t happen at the work place, but it came just one hour after my exhausting morning shift. I didn’t demand that RFE/RL pay for my medical treatment, although it wouldn’t have been hard to prove in court that my work schedule was the principle reason for my stroke.
I’ve always thought that RFE/RL’s mission is more important than my health, and that we would always come to an agreement, if needed.
We did. In 2008, RFE/RL management arranged my schedule in a different way. I started working from home on the web team as an editor, coming to the editorial office just once a week. As a longtime disabled employee, I thought that I would never be thrown out on the street by an American publicly-funded and publicly-owned company. I did not think that given my employment record and the public nature of my employment, such a thing would be likely to happen to me if I were employed in the United States and that RFE/RL would treat its employees as if they were working in America. But I was employed in Russia and I was wrong.
The mass firings at the RFE/RL Moscow bureau were done so inappropriately and with the use of such strong psychological pressure, that many of my colleagues and I got a distressing impression that fighting for our rights would be fruitless and impossible.
When RFE/RL managers said I was fired, I reminded them that I was disabled. They suggested that I could work one more month as a freelancer, a prolongation of the suffering.
It will be quite impossible for me to find a job in Moscow. I’m 52, and I’m disabled.
It is worth mentioning something that the chief executive did to increase our torment and humiliate us even more. Shortly before the mass firings, Steve Korn told us that we would finally be getting medical insurance. We spent years fighting for it, and this apparent victory seemed especially valuable for me. But as it turned out, we were not the ones to see the fruits of our struggles. Medical insurance will be a bonus for some other people who didn’t become disabled working for RFE/RL. Not for someone like me.
The new RFE/RL management keeps bragging about Radio Svoboda’s transformation into as a multimedia platform, which doesn’t involve dividing staff into radio and Internet teams. I was one of the employees who worked exactly without such a division of functions as one of the website’s editors, sports columnist and radio correspondent.
I also did photos and videos while covering UEFA championship in Kiev. I think my experience could become an example of new, multimedia Radio Svoboda.
But instead I was fired without any warning whatsoever or anyone bothering to talk to me or seek my input. I was informed of the fact that my experience in an area which coincides with RFE/RL multimedia strategy, as well as my health, are of no concern to the RFE/RL management. Such an attitude on the part of RFE/RL’s top American executives is capricious, nonprofessional and disreputable at the same time.”
RFE/RL executives claim that the mass firing was designed to transform Radio Liberty to become a multimedia digital platform. These claims are disputed by many former Radio Liberty journalists, web editors, video producers and technicians who all point out that they were all deeply involved in online and social media activities and that the station was already part of the digital future.
“I worked as RFE/RL’s Russian Service Internet team editor-in-chief for only three and a half years. Throughout that time, in spite of obvious difficulties of trying to reform traditional media, the website svobodanews.ru has become a remarkable presence on the Russian Internet.
I was convinced that our website was already leading a transformation Radio Liberty’s Russian Service (known as Radio Svoboda) and in fact that this process was already advanced. The number of website’s visitors grew eight times during these three years. The number of constant visitors – 20 times.
Radio Svoboda’s quotation index reached the second place among all Russian radio stations.
It took us one year to create active and rapidly growing communities on Facebook (more than 17 thousand subscribers) and Twitter (more than 21 thousand followers). The number of comments on Radio Svoboda website increased hundredfold.
Radio Svoboda’s Russian Service website was the first one among all non-TV media in Russia to video-broadcast live from the places of politically important events – including protest rallies, some of which took place in the depths of Russia.
www.svobodanews.ru was the only website in Russia which broadcast live the latest plea from the nation’s most famous political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
These results were achieved not by me but by a great team of journalists, radio broadcasters, and online content editors working together as colleagues. Radio Liberty’s Russian Service website team and I, as its editor-in-chief, had a concept of turning the Service into a comprehensive multimedia platform with all deliberate speed, but not through a revolution that ignores the station’s reputation, discards its best human talent, and produces a scandal in the blogosphere and in traditional media, as well as among our audience, which may now be lost forever after the deluge of negative publicity.
I delivered my concept of team building and multimedia expansion to RFE/RL Vice President Julia Ragona when I applied to be a candidate for the post of Radio Liberty’s Russian Service director.
Unfortunately, on 20 September, we were informed that we did an excellent job, but that all of us are no longer needed by RFE/RL. I am sure that if our team of dedicated, highly experienced and highly respected radio and web journalists were allowed to implement fully all of our concepts and projects, Radio Liberty Russian Service could have become a modern multimedia platform, having saved all of its traditional brands that make this media outlet what it is, what it means to our audience, and what it wants to achieve as part of its noble mission, which all of us proudly served.”
Another journalist makes similar observations and points out how the actions of RFE/RL management have resulted in waste and inefficiency.
“Even if we put aside the debate over the role of radio and the Internet in contemporary Russia, it is impossible to ignore the fact that journalists in the Moscow Bureau acted as both radio and Internet broadcasters and online content producers. We prepared materials simultaneously for the air and for the web – two different versions (for each of which we did our own editing and preparation work). Many of us used time outside the office to learn how to produce and edit video materials. In other words, we were fully prepared for transitioning to the new platform. Nonetheless, the first people fired were those who produced professional video materials and even entire films for the station’s website. Moreover, some of these individuals had been recognized with awards for their work by RFE/RL’s management. What was the benefit of firing the very people who would have been instrumental in facilitating the transition to the so-called “multimedia platform”?
Ms. Ragona and Mr. Korn had several discussions with us about new equipment, new facilities, new furniture, but not once did they address the issue of how they envisioned broadcasting online. We posed this question on numerous occasions, but never received an answer. We were told where we would film our material, but not what our content would be like. If RFE/RL’s Mission Statement has significantly changed, then why is this fact being concealed from the employees? If the Mission Statement has not changed, then why has the Moscow Bureau been practically obliterated?
For many years, we have been reminded by the management about the importance of efficiency and doing more with less, and we accepted the loss of many important features of our work environment because we understood that the budget situation required these measures. Now we are being laid off, but others are being hired and a much larger facility is being built at a very high cost. By law, employees require at least two months’ notice before dismissal. This means that we could have worked for another two months and earned money for the work we actually performed. Instead, we are now being paid this money as compensation for agreeing to leave immediately, while others are being hired to fill some of our former positions. Where is efficiency in this? In the senseless spending of American taxpayers’ money?”
This last letter from a fired Radio Liberty sound editor and producer points out how difficult it will be for him and his colleagues to find a professional job in Russia because they are tainted by their fight with official censorship.
“I am exasperated and confused. I worked with RFE/RL Russian Service for 14 years, and witnessed such a notorious ending!
People, who gave years of hard work to popularize democracy and human rights activism, are caught unawares, and fired one by one in no time.
I remember guards at our beloved RFE/RL Moscow editorial office and frozen eyes of bureaucrats saying ‘Thank you, we no longer need your service. Here is your compensation, hope you are satisfied.’
As time goes by I begin to more fully realize what happened. Seizure, devastation? What will happen to the Radio, what will happen to my colleagues? Will everyone have a knack to stay healthy after such a strike?
Why did RFE/RL top management decide that we can’t and don’t want to work in a new – multimedia – format?
Everyone knew about the switch to multimedia, and was getting prepared for it. Everyone dreamed of working with new equipment on an updated radio station.
Why were we fired? Still no answer.
Our RFE/RL Moscow bureau team consisted of professionals, who were invited to Radio Svoboda by different directors. Directors changed, and my colleagues carried on doing their job with great talent and honesty.
Many of them, due to their political beliefs and censorship in Russia, will not be able to find jobs in Russian media. Training for a new profession and the unemployment office are awaiting most of us.”
Both parts represent BBG Watch Commentary on the events in Moscow.
Fired Radio Liberty Moscow employees included famous journalists and digital media experts
BBG Watch Commentary
The new director of the Radio Liberty Russian Service, Russian American journalist, writer and gay rights advocate Masha Gessen, claims that she had nothing to do with firing of almost the entire staff of the Radio Liberty Moscow bureau. She has also accused one former Radio Liberty contributor and the fired editor-in-chief of the Russian website of slander for suggesting links between her and the mass firing because they happened after she was selected for the job but before she officially came on board. She continues to deny any direct role in the firings. Slander is a criminal offense in Russia under a new law signed by President Putin with fines up to $150,000.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty President Steven Korn and Vice President Julia Ragona insist that the reorganization of the Moscow bureau was done to prepare it for Radio Liberty’s new role in digital media in Russia after RFE/RL lost a medium wave (AM) radio frequency in Moscow under a new Russian media law. But the list of the fired employees (some resigned in protest) shows that the entire Internet and social media team was also dismissed along with some of the most famous Radio Liberty journalists. Russian human rights leaders, former President Mikhail Gorbachev and other opposition politicians protested the firings at Radio Liberty. The head of the liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy said that he would consider hiring some of the fired Radio Liberty broadcasters.
Ms. Ragona, who oversaw the firings in Moscow, said that Russian human rights and opposition leaders who sent a letter of protest to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and members of the U.S. Congress were confused about what happened at Radio Liberty. Neither an experienced journalist nor a Russian scholar, she was put in charge by Mr. Korn as Vice President for Program Content, Distribution and Marketing after he fired veteran journalists and Eurasia experts who previously occupied some of the senior positions at Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty and whom he called privately “old white guys.”
BBG members rebuked Mr. Korn for this “old white guys” comment and quietly reversed some, but not all of his personnel decisions in Prague, but at that time the majority strongly resisted calls from at least two BBG members to fire him over the incident and his earlier personnel decisions, which — according to our sources — they considered disastrous. BBG Watch has learned that BBG members have scheduled a special teleconference for later this week to discuss the latest crisis over the firings at the Radio Liberty Moscow bureau and Mr. Korn’s role.
“This is such a major crisis and public diplomacy disaster that it will be difficult for BBG members to ignore it,” one expert on U.S. international broadcasting told BBG Watch.
“On the other hand, they are responsible for ignoring clear signs of Mr. Korn’s complete unsuitability for this job. Admitting that they were responsible and reversing his decisions will be difficult for those BBG members who defended him earlier. Therefore, the final outcome of this public diplomacy crisis and the future of the outstanding and brave team of Radio Liberty journalists in Moscow are still unclear. It is also unclear whether the BBG will do anything to repair this terrible damage to Radio Liberty’s reputation and America’s image in Russia,” the expert said.
Mr. Korn issued a statement in which he implied that the fired Radio Liberty employees were treated with great respect and made the following observation:
“Though we have said good-bye to some of our journalists and other colleagues, we are thankful to have had the benefit of their creativity and dedication over the years and hope they will continue to contribute their voices and ideas to the public forum.”
But some of the fired journalists said they were humiliated by being fired in a law firm office in Moscow and prevented from returning to work, and one independent Russian journalist described Mr. Korn’s statement asmockery.
The list of fired journalists and employees of the Radio Liberty Moscow Bureau was sent to BBG Watch by some of them along with the photograph taken on the day of the mass firing.
Radio Liberty Moscow — Partial List of Journalists and Other Staffers Who Were Fired or Resigned
Michael Sokolov – on air personality, the host of the Radio Liberty political show,
President Yeltsin personally handed him the license for Radio Liberty broadcasting
in Russia in recognition of his role in live reporting during the communist coup in 1991
Elena Rykovtseva – on air personality, the host of the Radio Liberty news show
Vitaly Portnikov – on air personality, the host of the Radio Liberty news show
Marina Timasheva – one of the best expert on Russian culture, the
editor and presenter of cultural programs on Radio Liberty
Anna Kachkaeva – on air personality, university professor and dean, expert on Russian
media, host on Radio Liberty programs on media issues, including social media, organized BBG seminar for Russian journalists on using social media to report on migrant ethnic workers in Russia (resigned herself)
Elena Fanaylova – poet, on air personality, the host of the show Liberty in
Clubs (resigned herself)
Veronika Bode – on air personality, the host of the Radio Liberty Public Opinion Program
Danila Galperovich – on air personality, the host of the Radio Liberty program Face to Face
Ivan Trefilov – one of the best observer of economics news in Moscow
Kristina Gorelik – experienced human rights reporter, the host of the Radio Liberty
show Third Sector
Vladimir Abarbanell – the coordinator of the Radio Liberty correspondent network in
Russia, editor and presenter of the Radio Liberty program about Russian regions –
Valeria Shabaeva – the editor and presenter of the Radio Liberty program Press Review
Andrey Trukhan – editor of the evening Radio Liberty political show
Lubov Chizhova – Radio Liberty special correspondent
Vitaly Kamyshev – Radio Liberty special correspondent
Mumin Shakirov – Radio Liberty special correspondent
Ludmila Telen – the chief editor of the Radio Liberty website and social media
Alexander Kulygin – Radio Liberty cameraman, video editor
Nikita Tatarsky – Radio Liberty cameraman, video editor (resigned himself)
Marina Petrushko – Radio Liberty’s specialist on Internet and social media promotion
Alexey Kuznetsov – editor of Radio Liberty’s website and online content, sports expert
Yury Vasiliev – editor of Radio Liberty’s website
Michael Shevelev – editor of Radio Liberty’s website
Tatiana Skorobogatko – editor of Radio Liberty’s website
Alexey Morgun – editor of Radio Liberty’s website
Nairi Ovsepian – editor of Radio Liberty’s website
Yury Timofeev – Radio Liberty photographer
Daria Zharova – Radio Liberty news service
Eugenia Melnikova – Radio Liberty news service
Maria Stroykova – Radio Liberty news service
Ekaterina Evseeva – Radio Liberty news service
Yulia Ivanchenkova – Radio Liberty news coordinator
Ekaterina Skariatina – Radio Liberty news coordinator
Elena Kolupaeva – Radio Liberty sound chief editor
Ekaterina Visotskaya – Radio Liberty sound editor
Dmitry Nalitov – Radio Liberty sound editor
Valery Proydakov – Radio Liberty sound editor
Alexander Orlov-Sokolsky – Radio Liberty sound editor
Ilia Tochkin – Radio Liberty technical director (postponed to 31 Dec)
Bella Kaloeva – Radio Liberty administration (postponed to 10 Nov)
BBG’s Victor Ashe disassociates himself from (now removed) statement of support for RFE/RL President Korn
UPDATE: After the protest from Governor Victor Ashe, the statement of “Governors’ support for Steve Korn’s leadership” has been removed from the BBG website.
BBG Watch Commentary
Reached by phone by an independent reporter who contributes to BBG Watch, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) Republican member Governor Victor Ashe said he completely disassociates himself from the just posted official BBG statement, which included the following sentence: “Lynton [BBG Interim Presiding Governor Michael Lynton] reiterated Governors’ support for Steve Korn’s leadership of RFE/RL in its efforts throughout the region.” Governor Ashe called the mass firing of Radio Liberty Moscow bureau journalists and other staffers “a terrible tragedy” and said the decision should be reversed. He said that after the events in Moscow his confidence in RFE/RL President Korn has been shaken to the core.
Governor Victor Ashe said that he did not hear Governor Lynton make this statement during Thursday’s meeting and would have objected to it if he heard it.
Governor Ashe was quoted by the reporter as saying that the mass firing of Radio Liberty journalists in Moscow and the cancellation of many of their political and human rights programs and the manner in which these dismissals were reportedly conducted have shaken his confidence in Mr. Korn’s leadership to the core.
To imply in the statement that he, as just one member of the BBG, supports Steve Korn’s leadership of RFE/RL in its efforts throughout the region “would be revisionist history,” Ashe was quoted as saying.
Ashe said that he was deeply shaken by the events in Moscow. “For Mr. Korn to say that the whole controversy will soon die down is wishful thinking,” Ashe is quoted as telling the reporter. “It avoids a serious discussion of very serious issues,” Ashe said.
“After the events in Moscow, I deeply worry about the direction in which Radio Liberty is going,” Ashe told the reporter. “Frankly, it will have to take a revision through Congressional oversight to have a mid-course correction,” Ashe said and suggested that Mr. Korn does not listen carefully to any criticism.
Asked about what he would like to say to Radio Liberty journalists fired in Moscow, Ashe said:
“I feel terrible about it. My heart goes out to them. It’s a terrible tragedy. I completely understand their sense of betrayal, but I don’t have have the support of the rest of the Board members to reverse these decisions.”
Asked about his exchange with Mr. Korn during the meeting about the proposed layoffs of Radio Liberty Russian Service staffers in Prague and Mr. Korn’s answer that the number of those who will lose their jobs is between five and twenty, Governor Ashe told the reporter that these layoffs, as well as those in Moscow, are “foolish and self-defeating vis-a-vis Vladimir Putin and his increasingly repressive policies.”
BBG Watch has heard unconfirmed reports that 17 Russian Service employees in Prague will lose their jobs.
BBG Watch Commentary
From the BBG Statement, Oct. 12, 2012:
“Lynton spoke at length of recent Russian legislative steps that have imposed restrictions on freedom of expression, including a law that is forcing RFE/RL programs off of the organization’s last AM affiliate in Moscow. He noted, ‘This board strongly objects to the tightening stranglehold on the free flow of information taking place today in Russia.’ Lynton reiterated Governors’ support for Steve Korn’s leadership of RFE/RL in its efforts throughout the region.”
This part of the statement, just posted, on the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) website, especially the last sentence, if it is accurate because we did not hear Mr. Lynton say it, would be a gesture of complete contempt for former President Gorbachev, former Prime Minister Kasyanov, other Russian democratic leaders and human rights activists like Lyudmila Alexxeeva, who have sent appeals and letters of protest to the BBG against the firing of Radio Liberty journalists in Moscow and demanding that they be reinstated and their political and human rights programs resumed.
These prominent Russians all put the blame on the RFE/RL management team headed by Mr. Korn, some also blamed the BBG and the Obama Administration.
It would be a gesture of contempt toward the journalists against whom RFE/RL executives used security guards and prevented them from even saying good bye to their radio listeners and website visitors of many years.
It would be a gesture of contempt toward more than 2000 Radio Liberty listeners who have signed a petition to the BBG in just two days and a copy of which was forwarded to Governor Lynton.
Mr. Lynton had on his cellphone copies of numerous protests and appeals, but he did not acknowledge them in any way.
Furthermore, Mr. Lynton spoke of a new anti-slander law in Russia, signed by Mr. Putin and used by the Kremlin to stifle free speech, even though he had been informed that a new RFE/RL manager in Russia made accusations of slander against pro-democracy journalists.
What we can gather from the BBG statement that, if it is accurate, Mr. Lynton and the other BBG members — now with the exception of Governor Victor Ashe and Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Tara Sonenshine (who was not present at the meeting0 — have a complete contempt for the views of:
Mikhail Gorbachev, former President and Nobel Peace Prize winner:, “Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty’s management decision to dismiss almost all of the Russian service staff looks especially strange in this context”[attacks on glasnost], “It is hard to get rid of an impression that RFE/RL’s American management is prepared to make an about-turn”;
former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov: “We were shocked by the decision of the officials of RFE/RL. This decision will cause tremendous harm to the political media freedom in Russia and therefore we are expressing our deep concern”;
former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov: “The purge in Moscow bureau has badly damaged the reputation of RFE/RL as a free international media working in traditions of democratic standards”;
former Vice Speaker of the Parliament (Duma) Vladimir Ryzhkov: “We recommend the Broadcasting Board of Governors in Washington to revise the RFE/RL management decision and restore medium-wave broadcasting and the Radio Liberty Moscow team”;
Russian United Democratic Party “Yabloko” leaders, former Duma member Sergei Mitrokhin and former presidential candidate Grigory Yavlinsky: “This team made Radio Svoboda website one of the most competent and highly quoted political resources in the Russian segment of the Internet.To the best of our judgment, a bureaucratic mistake took place, which is turning into the other – political – mistake. Bureaucrats supervising mass media were making their narrow decisions, without considering the political consequences, which are indeed political. The Russian audience has lost the information source which it trusted throughout many decades. It is obvious that mass media reputation is the reputation of its journalists.”
former Deputy Energy Minister Vladimir Milov: “You’ve seemingly done all you could so far, demonstrating instead a stunning example of desperate political idiocy. Thanks for making Putin’s life easier, and ours much harder”;
Lyudmila Alexeeva, Chairwoman of the Moscow Helsinki Group: “Reorganization of Radio Liberty work was carried out in a form of ‘special operation’ that was shameful and abusive for its employees. The KGB could not harm the image of the radio and the United States in Russia as did US managers – the President of the Radio Liberty Steven Korn and the Vice President Julia Ragona”;
Sergei Kovalyov, Chairman of the Russian “Memorial”, the chairman of the Public Commission for the Preservation of the Heritage of Academician Sakharov — Andrei Sakharov Foundation: “We ask the Congress to set up a special commission to investigate the activities of the Radio Liberty’s management, which caused such damage to the image of the United States in Russia and review the decisions that have been made”;
Vladimir Bukovsky, writer, a former political prisoner in the Soviet Union: “Mr. Korn and Ms. Ragona’s staffing solutions were conducted without even slightest consideration of the creative contribution and potential of each employee. Dismissed are the professionals with stainless reputations. Some of the journalists have left Moscow office of Radio Liberty deliberately on moral grounds”
Tatiana Yankelevich, Center Associate, Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, daughter of Elena Bonner and stepdaughter of Andrei Sakharov: “Today a grave and gross error of judgement is taking place with Radio Liberty,” “Digging an early grave for Radio Liberty”;
Pavel Litvinov, a former political prisoner in the Soviet Union: “Scandalous publication about the activities of American management team of the radio appeared in Russian and foreign press. The managers themselves could not explain its decisions to the Russian society. These decisions look very strange, while the financing or the Russian service for years 2012- 2013 has not been reduced, but in fact even increased”;
Alexei Simonov, the President of the Glasnost Defense Foundation: “Mass dismissals of journalists have disorganized the work of the broadcast and the work of the radio’s website for extended period”;
Lev Ponomarev, Executive Director of the Russian movement “For Human Rights”: “From now on, every time Russian authorities will decide to close one or another independent media, they will refer to for them very convenient “experience” of the management of Radio Liberty”;
Lilia Shibanova, Executive Director of the Association of Non-Profit Organizations “In Defense of Voters’ Rights «GOLOS»;
Valeriy Borzshov, the rights advocate, the member of the Moscow Helsinki Group;
Svetlana Gannushkina, the human rights activist, who was reported to have been a serious contender for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize;
Dr. Vladimir Shlapetokh, renowned sociologist, Michigan State University: “My reaction was perfectly conveyed by Viktor Shenderovich, a leading liberal blogger in Russia, who stated that ‘the KGB and FSB, all ideological departments of the Central Committee of CPSU, all detractors of the West in Putin’s Russia, all of them together’ could not do what Washington did to Radio Liberty”;
Dr. Lev Gudkov, Director of the Levada Center, an independent social research institute in Russia with the rest of the management and employees: “In an authoritarian state, and especially in the period of reaction and ‘crackdown,’ permanent restriction of freedom of speech (which is what is happening now in Russia), it seems extremely untimely to suspend the Radio Liberty broadcasting and to fire its old team. These are people, who advanced the country’s democratic values and human rights. We ask you to consider the situation and conduct a full and thorough investigation into the decisions of the Radio Liberty administration: President Stephen Korn and Vice President Julie Ragona, which resulted in the actual elimination of the radio in Russia”;
2000 Radio Liberty listeners who have signed a petition in just two days: “We demand that the fired ￼journalists be hired back. Probably the journalists, who quit Radio Svoboda to show solidarity with their colleagues, will then come back,” “Almost all Moscow bureau journalists, specializing in democracy and human rights ￼issues, were fired in just two days with no clear explanation. They just
￼disappeared, without even having a chance to say good-bye to their listeners. The ￼dismissal was so indecent that those who were not fired decided to quit. We still do ￼not know the names of those who were hired instead of the former workers. We have no proof that Radio Svoboda will continue its independent policy.”;
Radio Liberty employees who were fired or resigned in protest: “Such methods and style of management – bragging about a new multimedia concept and firing people who succeeded in its implementation and increased RFE/RL Russian Service web audience tenfold; dismissing all journalists, who throughout the last twenty years have become a part of RFE/RL’s brand – all this looks like the worst kind of mismanagement and a gross violation of moral and ethical values.”
Even though the statement of support for RFE/RL President Korn and his leadership was removed, the BBG Governors — with the exception of Governor Ashe, who did express his reservations, and Under Secretary of State Sonenshine, who did not attend the meeting — did not in any way acknowledge these protests, letters and petitions. That shows a lot of arrogance and clear contempt for some very important Russian democratic leaders. The assumption is, therefore, that — with some exceptions — the BBG believes that Mr. Korn knows Russia — its history, culture, politics, and media — far better than any of these Russian opposition leaders, human rights activists, scholars, journalists, media personalities, Radio Liberty listeners and users of its website. The idea that these prominent Russians do not know what they are talking about and Mr. Korn and his American closest advisors do defies reason.
As one young Russian opposition politician Vladimir Milov said to his American friends, “Support Radio Liberty. That’s very simple, easy, and really worth the effort. You’ve completely ignored and disregarded the wise piece of advice. So don’t ask anymore. You’ve seemingly done all you could so far, demonstrating instead a stunning example of desperate political idiocy. Thanks for making Putin’s life easier, and ours much harder.”
How did he know that most BBG members would not even bother to acknowledge his and other protests.
No wonder that the image of arrogant and ugly Americans keeps growing in Russia, even among America’s best friends. Public Diplomacy 101, Anyone?
And if words are not enough, take a look at these photos:
Official BBG Press Release (Original Version)
BBG Condemns Jamming, Intimidation As Threats To Media Freedom
The Broadcasting Board of Governors today expressed its enduring outrage over persistent attempts to stifle the free flow of news and information through satellite jamming, intimidation and the detention of journalists in Iran, Syria, Cambodia, Ethiopia and elsewhere.
During the BBG’s Oct. 11 meeting, Presiding Governor Michael Lynton condemned the jamming of BBG satellite signals in Iran and said BBG journalists are encountering new impediments to free reporting almost daily.
“Just yesterday, Radio Free Asia and Voice of America reporters were summoned to a meeting with officials in a blatant attempt to discourage objective reporting on the Cambodian government,” Lynton said. As reported by Reuters, AFP and others, RFA and VOA…are among the few radio stations in Cambodia considered free of government influence.”
The Board also expressed concern about the cases of Marthe van der Wolf, a VOA reporter in Ethiopia who was forced by local police to erase recordings of a protest rally, and Gulnur Raqifqizi Kazimova, a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) freelancer who was prohibited from taking pictures in Azerbaijan.
Members of the Board renewed their condemnation of recent illegal jamming of BBG Persian broadcasts to Iran that also affected many other BBG radio and TV programs around the globe, including broadcasts in Arabic, Georgian, Armenian, Bosnian, and Korean.
“The Board calls on Iran to cease disrupting broadcast signals, and to respect the well-established international agreements that prohibit jamming,” Lynton said.
The Board also noted that Monday marked 50 days since the capture of Alhurra TV journalist Bashar Fahmi and his cameraman Cüneyt Ünal in Syria, and renewed its demand that the pair be released.
Fahmi and Ünal were last heard from on August 20, when they were reporting from Aleppo, Syria. On August 26th, Ünal appeared on Syrian television, but the Syrian government said it has no information on Fahmi.
Lynton spoke at length of recent Russian legislative steps that have imposed restrictions on freedom of expression, including a law that is forcing RFE/RL programs off of the organization’s last AM affiliate in Moscow. He noted, “This board strongly objects to the tightening stranglehold on the free flow of information taking place today in Russia.” Lynton reiterated Governors’ support for Steve Korn’s leadership of RFE/RL in its efforts throughout the region.
The BBG recognized the David Burke Distinguished Journalism Awards winners. This year’s winners are: Mukarram Khan Aatif of the VOA’s Deewa Radio; Karen Caballero of Radio and TV Martí; Sailab Mahsud of RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal; RFA’s Korean Service; and Mohamed Moawad and Lamia Rezgui Bourogaa of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks’ Radio Sawa.
Several events at the meeting honored the legacy and ongoing work of the Voice of America.
Board members enjoyed a presentation honoring VOA Ethnomusicologist Leo Sarkisian, the creator of Music Time in Africa, VOA’s oldest English-language music program. They presented a resolution expressing the agency’s appreciation to Sarkisian, who retired recently after a career that spanned more than half a century and took him to every country in Africa.
The Board also recognized the 20th anniversary of VOA’s Kurdish Service and the 50th anniversary of its Swahili Service.
Discussion at the meeting included the BBG’s expanded broadcasting reach in China via the Telstar satellite and other developments intended to modernize and extend the reach of the agency and its media worldwide.
Public documents related to this meeting will be posted here, and video of this meeting will be available on-demand shortly.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors is an independent federal agency, supervising all U.S. government-supported, civilian international broadcasting, whose mission is inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy. BBG broadcasts reach an audience of 187 million in 100 countries. BBG networks include the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa), Radio Free Asia, and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (Radio and TV Marti).
Broadcasting Board of Governors – Just How Bad It Is, And How Much Worse It Will Be, Part One
Broadcasting Board of Governors – Just How Bad It Is, And How Much Worse It Will Be, Part One
by The Federalist
If the press releases by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) were Christmas presents, we’d have a closet full – stacked floor to ceiling.
These guys are the perfect combination of arrogance and incompetence – a combination that has led to a failed agency with a failed mission.
Let’s consider the latest press release from the BBG’s Public Affairs Office (the Office of Propaganda, as we like to call it) dated October 11, 2012: “BBG Condemns Jamming, Intimidation as Threats to Media Freedom.”
Part One of this commentary addresses the fiasco perpetrated by the BBG regarding the Russian Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) – Radio Liberty (Radio Svoboda).
The BBG has neutered US Government international broadcasting to Russia. This started in 2008 when the BBG ended Voice of America (VOA) Russian Service radio broadcasts, right before the Russians invaded the Republic of Georgia.
Now, in 2012, the BBG has totally eviscerated its Radio Liberty Russian Service Moscow bureau staff, firing about 40 employees (five of them resigned on their own in protest against the brutal treatment of their colleagues) at the bureau and, according to sources, another 17 being lined up for similar treatment at the RFE/RL facilities in Prague.
As part of its disinformation campaign regarding this fiasco, the BBG is saying that it offered these employees a “buyout.” Baloney. This was no buyout. They were fired. They were given a choice between a cash severance payment or to be fired with nothing – if they wanted to fight the dismissals in Russian court. This is standard operating procedure by the BBG and its International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) senior staff. Legal and administrative law proceedings can take a long time and cost a lot of money. Consider the recent decision by the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) regarding the illegal reduction-in-force (RIF) at Radio/TV Marti and the landmark Hartman court decision in a class action lawsuit against the agency which cost the American taxpayers half a BILLION dollars.
These RFE/RL fired employees exercised the only rational decision available to them under the circumstances and with no notice.
The agency has used the term “buyout” because that is the impression it wants to sell to Members of Congress and others. In the Federal Government, “buyouts” have been used most often as an incentive to get employees to voluntarily retire from the Federal Service. The tactic used at RFE/RL with its Russian Service employees was under conditions best described as brutal, coercive and under duress.
BBG Federal employees take note: don’t think you’re safe and secure back there in the Cohen Building. These guys want to de-Federalize you and rob you of civil service rights and protections. They would be more than happy to use tactics on you similar to those used against the RFE/RL employees.
In place of these RFE/RL employees will be newer and fewer employees – but costing as much in salary and benefits as the more numerous employees being let go! That blows any “efficiency” argument by the BBG/IBB right out of the water.
In addition, the Moscow bureau will be headed by an individual known in Russia for being something of a media gadfly. In short, the chief will be the story rather than a nose-to-the-grindstone journalist or manager. She is also well known for interviews that put her at odds with the traditional values of Russian culture and the Russian Orthodox Church.
These are not the ingredients that augur well for a successful RFE/RL presence in Russia.
Add to that, the Russian government has taken steps to put in place more effective controls over news media in Russia. On top of that RFE/RL has lost its AM radio station/frequency/license in Moscow.
How is this looking so far?
But wait, there’s more!
The BBG is talking about new facilities in Moscow. So the questions are:
Who owns the building?
Who are the other tenants in the building?
If the bureau will contract out technical services, who owns the company providing those services?
Are new employees subject to security clearances to be working for an agency of the US Government?
Our sources tell us that the building may be partly owned or at least occupied by Vladimir Posner, a well known Russian media figure with ties to the government – and back in the old days he was the chief Soviet propaganda master appearing on American TV.
We know the Russians very well. You can be assured that the Russian security services will keep the RFE/RL Moscow bureau on a short leash, using various tactics at their disposal to make sure the new staff does not go “off the script” as determined by the Russian government. The journalists who were highly respected by the democratic opposition have shown that they have the courage to criticize the Kremlin and expose human rights abuses and corruption are gone.
And there’s even more!
As the BBG press release states:
“(Presiding Board Member Michael) Lynton spoke at length of recent Russian legislative steps that have imposed restrictions on freedom of expression, including a law that is forcing RFE/RL programs off of the organization’s last AM affiliate in Moscow. He noted, “This board strongly objects to the tightening stranglehold on the free flow of information taking place today in Russia.” Lynton reiterated Governors’ support for Steve Korn’s leadership of RFE/RL in its efforts throughout the region.”
The agency just got clocked by the Russian government and these guys added to the fiasco by hammering their own employees in the RFE/RL Moscow bureau!!!
Lynton admits to getting clocked and then turns around and says the equivalent of, “You’re doing a great job, Stevie!”
Our editors report this ringing endorsement has been removed. It’s not on the website anymore. But it is the press release of record that was send out to the entire world. To the best of our knowledge, no one has not been advised that the endorsement of Mr. Korn had been revised or the statement removed.
This is yet another perfect example of the hypocrisy of the BBG.
Our sources tell us that Mr. Korn, the RFE/RL president, is saying this will all blow over.
With all the negatives surrounding the decision regarding the RFE/RL Russian Service Moscow bureau: the firings, the new service chief, the protests from well known Russian opposition figures — former President Gorbachev, former Prime Minister Kasyanov, former Deputy Prime Minister Nemtsov, legendary human rights leader Lyudmila Alexeeva — and their opposition political parties and organizations, what Korn is doing is poking the Russian public in the eye every day with the mere existence of the “new” bureau. It has become a monument to stupidity and a reminder to people that the agency being co-opted by the Russian government.
And you can take it to the house: the Russian public won’t forget, especially when the BBG blows off criticisms of its actions with dismissive statements.
You can take the “L” out of RFE/RL and just label it: dead-on-arrival.
We have to say it:
US Government international broadcasting is in the hands of the wrong kind of people. On any level, the only things they do consistently well are enable and facilitate (a) the failure of US Government international broadcasting and (b) effective countermeasures by those opposed to the agency’s mission.
Whose side are these guys on?
Regimes large and small that want nothing of US Government international broadcasting, websites and the like are following a very successful playbook in how to defeat the US Government in its outreach programs.
This leads to the question:
Why are we spending close to a billion dollars a year to subsidize a brain-dead, failed mission led by venal, self-aggrandizing officials who only care about the size of their annual bonuses on top of their six-figure salaries?
This is commonly referred to as:
Waste, fraud and abuse.
Forget the trash talk from the BBG about “supporting freedom and democracy.”
Actions by the BBG would appear to indicate that they may well be the purveyors of intimidation and threat to media freedom.